Willie Lovett, 67, pleaded not guilty during an initial appearance in U.S. District Court on Thursday, the day after a grand jury returned a seven-count indictment against him. Lovett retired suddenly last September after a subordinate officer filed a sexual harassment complaint, ending a 40-year police career that included four years as Savannah-Chatham County police chief.
The indictment accuses Lovett of extorting cash from operators of an illegal gambling ring in exchange for protecting them from police. Lovett accepted cash payments on at least five separate occasions between 2004 and 2013, prosecutors said. A federal magistrate set bond for Lovett at $30,000, according to Savannah newspaper and TV news reports.
“We entered a plea of not guilty today, and we plan to prove that in a court of law,” said Lovett’s attorney, Dow Bonds, according to WTOC-TV.
Lovett was charged with five counts of extortion, and charges of participating in an illegal gambling operation and conspiring to obstruct enforcement of state laws. The charges carry a potential combined sentence of up to 110 years in prison.
Randall Wayne Roach and Kenny Amos Blount were charged with running the illegal gambling business. A fourth man, Randall Wayne Roach Jr., is also charged with participating in the gambling ring. It was not immediately known Thursday if Lovett’s co-defendants had hired attorneys.
Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson issued a statement saying it would inappropriate to comment on the charges against Lovett. But she insisted improvements have been made at the police department since Lovett stepped down last year.
“We are now focused on the future of the Department, including the selection of a new chief,” Jackson said.